Every family story is interwoven with stories of time and place. This is the High Street of the small Suffolk town of Lavenham, early in the 1920s. All my father’s grandparents lived there then, as they and many of their forbears had all their lives.
Harriet and Robert Smith (my dad’s maternal grandparents) lived at number 21 Shilling Street, in the house where Harriet had grown up. Harriet’s grandfather James, a thatcher, had lived in the house from the 1830s up to his death in 1877 and her father, another James, was born there. Number 21 had a long history before the Smith family moved in. Built in the fifteenth or early sixteenth century, the house might be a noted, historic monument in many towns. Among Lavenham’s extraordinary collection of mediaeval buildings it’s nothing exceptional.
In Tudor times Lavenham was said to be the fourteenth wealthiest town in England, paying more tax than considerably larger towns such as York and Lincoln. The town’s fortunes were tied to those of the Suffolk wool trade, established in the 13th century, booming in the 15th and declining in the 16th century. Lavenham’s economic decline was hastened by the high taxes levied by Henry VIII on the town’s rich merchants and by new weaving techniques, introduced by Dutch refugees settled in Colchester, which produced a cheaper, lighter and more fashionable cloth than Lavenham’s traditional broadcloth. By the nineteenth century Lavenham’s wealth ranked only forty-eighth in the county of Suffolk.
My father Ivor, born in 1915, first went to stay with his grandparents in about 1920. His mother had been unwell and probably needed a break from caring for her adventurous younger son. Ivor went to Lavenham in the summer and stayed on to start school there, at the school where his grandfather was the caretaker. Ivor (who grew up to be an engineer) was fascinated by the reversible seating in his school classroom, of a type common on early trams. The younger children were seated on benches, ranged round the walls of the classroom, which could either face inwards towards the teacher or, with the back flipped the other way, towards writing slates attached to the walls.
The 1920s postcard view of the High Street suggests a relatively prosperous place with well kept buildings. The view of Shilling Street (near the top of the page) may give a better sense of life in the town’s back streets at the time. Only the two bicycles propped against a wall (on the right of the picture) suggest that this is the twentieth century.
Ivor stayed with his grandparents for another extended visit after the birth of his younger brother in 1923. Then aged eight, Ivor was old enough to make himself useful on errands which gave him the opportunity to explore the sights, sounds and smells of earlier centuries. In later life Ivor reflected on the contrast between the two worlds of his childhood, the go-ahead, twentieth century town of Chelmsford where his father was a store keeper at Marconi’s electrical factory, and the medieval streets of Lavenham where much of daily life seemed caught in a time warp.
21 Shilling Street had no indoor plumbing until later in the 1920s when a single tap was installed in the back kitchen. Up till then, water came from three different sources, depending on use. An open rainwater butt (fascinating to a small boy because of all the wriggly larvae that lived in it) supplied water for washing floors. Clothes were washed (in a wood-fired copper) in water from the well, while drinking water came from an iron pump in the street some distance away. The family still had an old wooden yolk that fitted across the shoulders of the water carrier, to ease the strain of carrying two full buckets. Was that an errand entrusted to an eight year old? I don’t know and it’s too late to ask now.
One errand that the eight year old Ivor was keen to take on was fetching the Sunday roast. Early on Sunday morning a procession of children arrived at the local baker’s shop, each carrying a tin with their family’s meat and potatoes for roasting. The tins were all lined up in the big bread oven and at lunch time, after church, the children were despatched with tea towels to fetch the roast home again, somehow each returning with the right meal.
Robert and Harriet’s four children all moved away from Lavenham, Elizabeth and Clara to Chelmsford, Harry to Clacton and George, I’m sure I should know where… Robert died in 1936 and Harriet just a year later. I’ve read that in the 1930s and 40s the local council had plans to demolish many of Lavenham’s old streets, to replace them with houses with modern facilities. Somehow the funds were never forthcoming for this grand plan, giving the houses a reprieve long enough for the historic conservation movement to recognise the historic value of these ancient survivors.